I am not an IP address

Top Internet lawyer Graham Smith is alarmed by suggestions made ahead of last week’s Queen’s Speech that everyone may be allocated an Internet Protocol (IP) address when communicating over the Internet.  The truism that an IP address denotes a device, not a human being, is ingrained in anyone with a technical understanding of the internet.  Nothing gets […]

Internet and filtering applications: a tale of choice and revenues

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The original version of this article was published in French by the newspaper Liberation.


Last week, controversy erupted when FREE blocked advertising on internet services routed through its “FreeBox”. Internet content providers who rely on advertising to provide free content to consumers were furious.

The controversy illustrated the complexity of the internet economy. The delicate balance between choice and convenience, transparency and effective control, commerce and public interest.

My general starting principle is that consumers should be free to make real choices about their internet subscription and online activity.

Standard contracts and default settings for internet services can be convenient and efficient, but there are public-interest limits to this, either in general consumer protection law or in specific rules. For example, consumers have the right to choose whether they want to use ‘cookies’, which track their internet use, when browsing a website. And they should understand the costs and benefits of their choice.

The complexity and rapid evolution of the online economy mean new questions constantly arise about the public interest.

For example, since 2009, EU law promotes the ability of consumers to access the full range of lawful online applications, content and services. But the public interest does not, in my view, preclude consumers from subscribing to more differentiated, limited internet offers, possibly for a lower price.

Is there a public interest in parents having effective tools to control the material their young children can access online? Most would say yes, and the EU shares this view.

Likewise, most people would like a choice over whether or not to receive advertising alongside online content and services – but both consumers and online businesses seem to resent the perceived appropriation of that choice through obscure default settings.

In addressing questions like this, transparency and effective consumer control will nearly always be part of the solution.

That does not mean more pages to your 100-page contract! The Commission has been encouraging the advertising industry to ensure users get a clear choice about cookies, based on short, digestible information. The Commission is also working with a wider set of online actors to develop a “Do Not track” standard, so that consumers who make this choice can be sure it is respected.

On net neutrality, consumers need effective choice on the type of internet subscription they sign up to. That means real clarity, in non-technical language. About effective speeds in normal conditions, and about any restrictions imposed on traffic – and a realistic option to switch to a “full” service, without such restrictions, offered by their own provider or another. Ensuring consumer choice can mean constraints on others – in this case, an obligation for all internet service providers to offer an accessible “full” option to their customers. But such choice should also drive innovation and investment by internet providers, with benefits for all. I am preparing a Commission initiative to secure this effective consumer choice in Europe.

Make no mistake: I am in favour of an open Internet and maximum choice. That must be protected. But you don’t need me, or the EU, telling you what sort of Internet services you must pay for.

Applications available online already allow consumers to block some or all advertising, so distribution of such software by an internet provider like FREE is not in itself a revolution. But it forces us to consider two points.

First, consumers should not forget that choice has consequences. Opting for blocking ads or requesting privacy (‘do not track’) may mean you don’t get access to content for free. The internet does not run on its own. The network, content and internet access all have to be paid for by someone. Many smaller web operators exist on the basis of innovative advertising models. There are various ways consumers pay for content, including by viewing advertisements before or during their access to content. Businesses should accept that different consumers will have different preferences, and design services accordingly.

Second, we have seen the commercial and practical importance of default settings, but our reaction to a particular default setting can depend on both the values being defended and the specific implementation.

For example, because of the high value attached to privacy, we are less shocked by default settings that are restrictive than by those which are wide open – especially as regards more vulnerable users. In line with this, we are working with industry to improve the ways default privacy settings can protect children.

On the other hand, the high value that we attach to the open internet means that we promote installation of parental controls on all devices, but not their activation by default. This could, in practice, have the unintended consequence of limiting internet access for many adult users. Much better to give a real choice to parents, through clearly visible, user-friendly tools whose availability is well publicised.

We see the difficult interplay between these two interests – privacy and openness – when addressing the question whether “Do Not Track” should be activated by default in web browsers. Microsoft has chosen to do this in its Internet Explorer product. This has been criticised by competitors and advertisers. However, taking into account the competing public interests – and competition between browsers – and the availability of a user-friendly tool allowing individual choice both during installation and afterwards, I do not join that criticism of a commercial decision to appeal to privacy-conscious internet users. FREE’s initiative regarding default advertising blocking raised greater public-interest concerns because it was simultaneously wider in scope (affecting all advertising without exception) and was perceived to be difficult to reverse by end-users.

We see in these examples that individual company decisions affect sensitive public interests. Private actors can also contribute collectively to the public interest. The internet is a global community, governed through a multi-stakeholder approach which the EU strongly defended at a key UN conference in Dubai last month. Self-regulatory initiatives can complement legislation. The EU is currently facilitating such initiatives on behavioural advertising and tracking, and online child protection.

But such collective efforts must produce results that are clear, implementable and subject to monitoring and evaluation. And if they fail to meet public-interest objectives, the public authority must always reserve the right to step in.

Igniting web-tech entrepreneurship – who is Europe’s best?

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This is my first post of 2013, and I’m happy to kick off the year with a subject which you know I am really passionate about: the Europe’s tech & web entrepreneurs. These are the people following their dreams and creating their own companies. Coming up with ideas and products with the potential to change the way we live, work, play, communicate and collaborate. And they are also creating new jobs, sometimes in sectors and markets which don’t even exist yet. These inspirational people are at the cutting edge of the EU’s digital economy and economic recovery.
And we need to celebrate them and ensure that their ideas can start in Europe, and stay in Europe.

So that’s why I am looking for Europioneers in web or mobile, who have demonstrated the skill, innovation, drive, passion & leadership to be called Europe’s Tech Entrepreneur of the year. We need nominations in 2 categories: “European Tech Entrepreneur of the Year”, and “European Young Tech Entrepreneur of the Year” (which means still under 30 this year).
Nominations are now open and you have until Valentine’s Day, February 14th (#LoveDigital2013 !) to tell me who inspires you.
The competition is organised in partnership with The Next Web . There will be a public round of voting to select the 5 final nominees from your short list and the awards will be presented at an unforgettable award show in April. So please send your nominations now. We need to celebrate the success of our tech Europioneers who will inspire future generations.

I am very happy that I am not the only one in the Commission who recognises that entrepreneurs can help us build a way out of our current crisis. My colleague Antonio Tajani, today presented an action plan to re-ignite the entrepreneurial spirit in Europe. An important part of that plan is igniting and supporting Europe’s web and tech startups.
As I said at LeWeb in December, I want the EU to be the place for web entrepreneurs, to help us react and adapt more quickly to the new opportunities and demands of the digital economy. Over the course of this year I will be unveiling a series of measures to increase the momentum. This is our web-entrepreneurship action plan to support, promote and celebrate web-entrepreneurs.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be launching an Leaders’ Club to encourage Web entrepreneurship as a career. Half a dozen world class web entrepreneurs will act both as role models and as sources of strategic guidance to the European Commission as we seek to strengthen Europe’s entrepreneurial culture. More news about this soon.
Over the following months we will

  • Leverage web startup investment by creating a European network of web business accelerators; supporting a European network of crowd-funding platforms and help it to provide support, visibility and interconnectivity among existing EU crowd-funding platforms specialised in web start-ups; and encouraging venture capital investment in web-businesses
  • Create the Startup Europe Partnership, to strengthen the Web startup and technology investment ecosystem. This will bring serial entrepreneurs, large companies, specialised investors, mentors, accelerators and media with special interest in the web in contact with young entrepreneurs and online startups. It will unlock expertise, technology, services or offices, to support entrepreneurs.
  • Foster web talent in Europe, through education, such as Massive Online Open Courses; supporting networks, programmes and resources for bartering, acceleration and incubation, as well as mentoring.

Today’s economic crisis  has bought home the reality that the life-long stable jobs which my generation and my children’s generation took for granted, are no more. This is a tough reality, but also one filled with exciting possibilities for those with the courage and the right support to dream and create their own futures. Tech and web entrepreneurs are some of those inspirational creators.
I want Europe to be the place where they can dream, grow, and prosper.